Jerusalem24 – Noelle Mafarjeh and Shaden Hazeem – The Israeli military released a grandiose claim last Wednesday morning, a few hours after its army’s full withdrawal from Jenin following a 44-hour ground- and air-invasion of the city and refugee camp, the largest of its kind since the Second Intifada.
Not a single non-combatant, it said, was among the 12 Palestinians aged 16 to 23 who were killed during the invasion.
In a 48-hour, focused counterterrorism activity
targeting heavily-armed terrorist groups
in the densely-populated Jenin Camp (0.42 km²),
no non-combatants were killed.
When we say we make every effort to protect civilians
& only target terrorists
—we mean it.
— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) July 5, 2023
Where the Israeli military itself offered no proof to back up its claim, pro-Israeli pundits rushed to confirm the claim on the army’s behalf. One US-based commentator saw the footage of an unarmed youth being shot in the neck and categorized him as a combatant because another person in the frame is carrying what appears to be an IED.
But does Israel’s claim hold up to scrutiny?
Muddying the waters
The Israeli army cut off the electricity supply to Jenin refugee camp when they invaded in the early hours of Monday 3 July, leading to a dearth of documentation of events in Jenin as residents scrambled to save their phone battery and a large number of security cameras ceased to operate.
In the days after Israel’s retreat, however, video footage from still-functioning security cameras has begun emerging, as well as more detailed accounts from residents of the scenes they witnessed inside the camp.
So far, Jerusalem24 has documented three fatalities (including two minors) who were unarmed and uninvolved in hostilities with the army when they were shot and killed. One was coming to the aid of another injured minor who also became a fatality.
In two cases, security camera footage documenting the moment of their death became available in the days following the invasion. In two further cases, eyewitness testimony supported by video evidence was corroborated by testimony from a paramedic who recovered the bodies.
In a documented exchange, Israeli military spokesperson Richard Hecht knowingly lied to Times journalist Catherine Philip, responding in the affirmative when asked whether 16-year-old Abdul Rahman Saa’bneh was armed when killed and further stating the child was armed with “an automatic rifle”. The Times published security camera footage the following day showing Abdul Rahman was unarmed and uninvolved in confrontations when he was shot by a sniper on the grounds of Al-Amal Hospital in Jenin on Tuesday 4 July.
Two youths including a 16-year-old child were shot and killed while attempting to throw an IED at a military-grade bulldozer. Jerusalem24 is still working to determine the exact circumstances surrounding the killing of the seven remaining slain youths, including another two minors.
The case of Abdul Rahman Saa’bneh, 16
Reports began emerging on Monday afternoon of Al-Amal Hospital, located near Jenin refugee camp, being targeted by Israeli gunfire. The hospital incurred material damage but no injuries were recorded.
On Tuesday morning and then again around midday, the hospital and its surroundings once again came under Israeli fire. It was during one of these spontaneous volleys around 1 PM that Abdul Rahman was killed.
A hospital administration official who asked not to be named confirmed to Jerusalem24 that Abdul Rahman was shot in the head by a sniper while located on hospital premises. The official said there were no confrontations (armed or otherwise) taking place immediately before the teenager was shot, although it was known among hospital staff that Israeli snipers were located in buildings around the hospital.
The official is adamant Abdul Rahman was unarmed and a civilian: “Clearly, the hospitals do not allow weapons inside nor even of the hospital premises. They were civilians, wearing normal clothes, Palestinians youths standing on the street.”
The official’s account is corroborated by security footage first published by Abdul Rahman’s uncle on social media on Wednesday 5 July, then in Palestinian media on Saturday 8, and finally on Sunday 9 by The Sunday Times.
The hospital official further claims that soldiers in military jeeps began shooting at people at the scene as they tried to evacuate Abdul Rahman. “I told the Red Crescent paramedics to go grab him, and they were able to bring him inside. We gave him first aid then transferred him to Ibn Sina Hospital for surgery but he was pronounced dead.”
The case of Jawad Naa’irat, 20
The security camera footage documenting the moment 20-year-old Jawad Mujahed Naa’irat was shot in the neck also emerged in the days following Israel’s withdrawal.
The footage shows a clearly unarmed Jawad shot in the neck as he had his back turned and was walking away from the source of the shooting. Other Palestinian youths nearby disperse as Jawad is hit. He clutches his neck and falls to the floor before scrambling back to his feet and hiding behind a cart. The video has no sound and it is impossible to ascertain if he is shot at again.
No evidence has emerged that Jawad was affiliated with any Palestinian faction, and he was both unarmed and not engaged in any type of hostilities when he was shot.
The case of Majdi Ararawi, 17
Shaky mobile phone footage captured on the morning of the first day of the invasion, and immediately published by Palestinian media, depicts the harrowing scene of three injured Palestinian youths, bloodied and piled one on top of the other in between two parked vehicles on the side of a street.
The youth to the left is 16-year-old Ali Al-Ghoul, who was shot moments before. Separate footage from a security camera that was published a week after the invasion shows Ali being shot as he prepares to throw an IED at an Israeli military-grade bulldozer on the street below, along with 21-year-old Ahmad Al-Amer, who is also shot and killed at the scene.
A first pair of youths run down the street, from a location out of view of the camera, and pull Ahmad around a corner and out of view.
A second pair of youths, 17-year-old Majdi Ararawi and his cousin K., also run down the street and pull Ali behind a car where they crouch down themselves.
The next available piece documentation is a photo taken on a mobile phone which shows Majdi laying down next to Ali, with K., shirtless and bleeding from the head, in a sitting position next to the pair.
Finally, the graphic footage initially published shows K. collapsed on top of Majdi and Ali.
Eyewitness testimony recounted to Palestinian media in real time described Majdi being shot in the leg after pulling Ali behind the car. K. then took off his shirt to bandage Majdi’s leg but was shot in the eye. Majdi was then shot a further three times in the neck, chest, and arm.
The eyewitnesses said Israelis snipers fired at anyone attempting to evacuate the three injured youths, a claim corroborated by Palestinian Red Crescent head of emergencies and paramedic Ahmad Jibril, who was part of the crew that eventually retrieved the three.
Jibril also confirmed there were no armed confrontations in the area at the time but that he had heard the sound of explosions, possibly the IEDs thrown by Ali and Ahmad. The paramedics saw no weapons at the scene.
Majdi “lost his life trying to save his friend”, his heartbroken mother told Jerusalem24. “He lost his father when he was in the fifth grade. He was everything to me. He was my baby, my friend, my neighbor, he was everything to me in this life.”
K. remains hospitalized after losing his right eye.
Posing with weapons: A death sentence for Palestinian teenagers?
The Israeli military (as well as both Palestinian and international media) often rely on statements of mourning or claims of affiliation by armed Palestinian groups to determine whether a Palestinian fatality was themselves an armed fighter. The social media accounts of teenagers are scoured to find any mention of a revolutionary slogan, a call to arms, or a photo of a weapon.
However, armed groups have been known to claim “martyrs” as their own in order to bolster their popularity and their own ranks, with more than one group often claiming the same person as their own.
It is also common for Palestinian teenagers, especially in refugee camps, to post photos of themselves holding guns. Whether photoshopped or genuine, these offer no proof that they are an active member of an armed group – or that they were engaged in hostilities when they were killed.
“Palestinian factions claim individuals were affiliated, irrespective of whether they were a part of an armed group or involved in fighting when killed,” Israel-Palestine director of Human Rights Watch Omar Shakir told The Sunday Times. “A claim of factional affiliation by a Palestinian group does not suffice to legally justify a killing by Israeli forces, under international human rights law applicable in the West Bank.”
What does the law say?
In its Tweet claiming it killed “no non-combatants”, the Israeli military further states it “only targets terrorists”.
However, Israel registers incidents of stone-throwing, burning tires, or throwing “objects” as terrorist attacks, and amended its rules of engagement in December 2021 to allow its soldiers to shoot-to-kill stone-throwers even if they are fleeing and presenting no danger.
So under international law, who exactly qualifies as a combatant, who a terrorist, and who a civilian?
According to Al-Haq general director and laywer Shawan Jabarin, this question is easy to answer in the occupied West Bank.
“I’ve said it multiple times during interviews: Palestinians are civilians,” he tells Jerusalem24. “The status of civilian is [only] forfeited when that civilian becomes part of a direct [armed] operation.”
As for armed Palestinians, or Palestinians affiliated with armed groups, “even if they are armed, but not [engaged] in a direct, armed confrontation, they are civilians in occupied land.”
In The Sunday Times, Shakir emphasized the necessity for one condition in particular to be fulfilled when shooting-to-kill: “The determination of legality here turns on whether the person posed an imminent threat to life when fatally shot.”
For Palestinian Jerusalemite writer and specialist in international diplomacy Jalal Abu Khater, the terms “combatant” and “terrorist”, which Israeli uses interchangeably, only aim to “dehumanize” Palestinians – and qualifying armed Palestinian fighters of terrorists actually falls foul of international law, he says.
“How can someone claim that a terrorist is someone who is actively shooting and attacking an occupation soldier in occupied territory?” he tells Jerusalem24. “By international law, by the legal definition, this is a right for every occupied person, by every means necessary, [including] military force in active combat.”
“Even when they say [they’re fighting] terrorism in Jenin, it’s hollow, it has no meaning,” Abu Khater continues. “It’s just a way to dehumanize and justify the onslaught and the cost on civilian life in the long term. The fact that they do this shouldn’t matter to us Palestinians, because in their eyes, we’re all enemies, we’re all terrorists.”
“If they kill an innocent bystander or kill an active fighter, they will treat it in the same way.”